Words spoken almost in a whisper by Monsignor Ignazio Bedini, a Salesian, the bishop emeritus of Isfahan of the Latins, at his home in Tehran. A thought that seems almost to have escaped from the shackles of his shyness, an image that casts a revealing beam of light on the fifty-two years he has spent in Iran.
More than half a century of life in the service of the Latin Church in a country that so worries its neighbours and the entire West, before, during and after the Revolution, a life summerised by retracing the historical stages. But the recently pensioned Bishop points out: “Before and during the Revolution. The day after is yet to come. And I hope to see it.”
Monsignor Bedini does not waste words, he uses few, heavy with long experience divided equally by joy and sorrow, but always based on a confidence that has resulted in a particular presence in the country with an overwhelming Muslim majority. The confidence that the witness of Christ does not need to make a noise, especially where any statement however minimal could be claimed to be “proselytizing” is forbidden by the state, a confidence which requires you to stay faithfully where you are called to be. In times of great mobility, where the first difficulty results in running away, this call to “stand”, to be there, is charged with an extraordinary power.
At the beginning of 2015, the missionary from Sassuolo in Emilia (Italy) reached retirement age and handed over to his successor. And so there has begun a period not so much of taking stock, which is the duty of others, as of stories and memories. To forget them would in fact be a loss for everyone.
Monsignor Bedini’s first period in Iran was in 1962. Young Ignazio went to Tehran for an internship at the Don Bosco school of the Salesian Fathers, whose students then numbered 1,200 and in 1980 would come to more than 1,800. 90% of these consisted of Muslims, to which was added a minority of Jews, Zoroastrians and others of various affiliations. Later, having completed his theological studies in Bethlehem, he was ordained a priest in the Basilica of Gethsemane by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Monsignor Giacomo Beltritti, on 21 December 1968. After his ordination he was sent to Tehran where he remained until recently, except for a brief period between 1980 and 1981 when he was expelled along with other priests as a result of new rules imposed by the revolutionary regime allowing only one priest for each church. At the time there were six Latin churches, and therefore only six Latin priests remained in Iran, instead of the more than thirty previously.
The years in which the Salesian’s school was successful remain fresh in the memory of priests, teachers and alumni. The ex-students are now professionals in careers. They often pass by to say hello, driven by a sense of gratitude: “If I had not studied in this school, I would not be who I am,” several have remarked. The school climate was a very livelyc one due to the activism of the many students. They included foreign families residing in Tehran for work, but also many Iranians.
Before the Revolution, the Latin Catholics community flourished. Many other religious were engaged in education in addition to the Salesians – the Vincentians and the Dominicans to name just a few examples. The exchange of experiences proved effective and the level of education offered was very high.
The Revolution of 1979 changed the face of the country, the school “changed hands,” the priests were removed and the majority of foreigners left. The number of Latin Catholics decreased dramatically. Immediately after the Revolution, the war with Iraq began. Eight years of constant hardship, bombings, impoverishment, with continual ideological lessons and propaganda by those who ruled a State which had been turned upside down. In particular, the memory of the bombs that fell a few meters from the house of the Salesians is one that does not fade. A wall near the church still bears the signs of machine gun fire, left after a battle with the enemy.
Baghdad and Tehran were engaged in mutual massacre, trapped in a spiral of violence that seemed could only end in the annihilation of each side. But even when bombs fell from the sky, Monsignor Bedini did not move. He remained in the capital, and explains “Why was it important to stay? Someone phoned the parish to ask us if we were still there. ‘Do not go, stay here, we can’t deal with our fear alone’, they told us,” To understand the fear of those years, it is enough to remember that most nights they went to sleep out of the city, in the desert.
And the priests remained. A silent presence in a daily routine wounded by war, hunger, shortage of goods. “To get a piece of bread or some gasoline or other essential goods, you needed to get up early and stay in line for many hours. This was the life of the people there, and also ours.”
The war with Saddam Hussein finally ended, and Iran began to reassemble the pieces, to mend wounds, to rebuild its future between progress and setbacks. Until now, when a season that sees international meetings gives fresh hope to a nation that asks to open new horizons.
During the course of this story, through adverse circumstances but also those of hope, a consciousness of what it means to be a Christian presence in Iran has developed, one which demands an always vigilant attention to domestic and international geopolitical developments, but which is not ultimately determined by these. “The simple fact of being here is in itself a witness,” says Monsignor Bedini. “The Church exists here. If you look out the door of our house you will see many cars passing, and everyone who passes glances at the church, even in distraction, but they note it: and this is already a witnessing. They are small things, of course, but they have their own weight. The few Christians here need not feel abandoned. You might consider this mode of presence ‘passive’. In fact, it consists in listening, in the accompaniment of the few who are here. This style of presence, which comes from the fact that the laws of this country do not allow us to announce the Gospels or to accommodate people of Muslim faith in our facilities, in the end, allow us a substantive dialogue with Islam.” A concrete example of this is the collaboration initiated with several Iranian scholars who have successfully translated the Catechism of the Catholic Church into Farsi. A tool that allows the Iranians to get to know Catholicism through their own sources, their own teachings, and not only through Islamic sources.
The purpose of the Christian presence in Iran, noted Monsignor Bedini, is very basic, it is to love and serve the neighbour: “The Church canonized Charles de Foucauld who was praying in the desert, and even Mother Teresa whose primary objective was not to baptise the people she met. This road is marked by love and service, just as Pope Francis pointed out to all Christians everywhere, and its place can be found even in Muslim countries. But if this presence, however slight, is removed from the Middle East, then it will be very difficult to recover. Our mere presence here is almost a form of silent announcement: you can make the gospels known outside the church without preaching it in words. There are no illusions here, but we are hopeful”.
Because the Iranians, for Monsignor Bedini, are a great people, one that deserves great confidence, but there is a need to be realistic: the Muslim world is in general a difficult world. “The first Salesians went on a mission to India in 1922 and today there are more than 2,000. We have been in the Middle East since 1892 and we have always had a tough job. But we remain confident. Because we are witnesses of an Other.”